Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Even with all its grandeur

Looking east towards Bryant Park from 41st Street and Sixth Avenue. 8:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, January 23, 2018. 38 degrees and very foggy as I write this a half hour before midnight. Yesterday was grey and damp, with a chilly fog moving in in the late afternoon.
Looking south down East End Avenue through the heavy fog at midnight.
Last night I went to the Director's Circle dinner at the Frick Collection. Black tie. The invitation read: Dinner in the Dining Room. I’ve been to the Frick many times over the years. I wasn’t aware which of the rooms was the dining room. All of the rooms are magnificent. That is the authentic word for this house, a creation of a steel baron from 19th century Pittsburgh.

As a mansion it is very impressive because it feels  like one. You feel you are in a safe and secure place – not in terms of the activity in the world out there these days, but in terms of your mind and consciousness. It’s a museum of course, but there’s nothing quite like it anywhere. Yes there are museums of individuals. The Huntington is an excellent example. But the Frick is the man’s house. 
Cocktail hour before the Director's Circle Dinner.
St. Jerome in the Wilderness, Paolo Veronese, painted in 1566-1567. The Frick Collection's Veronese in Murano: Two Venetian Renaissance Masterpieces Restored, is an exhibition focused on two recently conserved and rarely seen paintings by the celebrated artist Paolo Veronese, St. Jerome in the Wilderness and St. Agatha Visited in Prison by St. Peter.  While the paintings are known to scholars, their remote location in a church in Murano, an island in the lagoon of Venice, has made them difficult to study. St. Jerome in the Wilderness has been exhibited outside the church only once — in 1939.
You get a very strong sense of the man when you are in it. You share in his vibe, one might say. His vibe comes from five and six generations back. I don’t doubt that he was deeply serious, and many other things. He was a country boy who made a great fortune and adapted to the city New York. His house was his monument to himself, a kind of personality description. But when you are in it, you are accepted by it. The Sir Thomas More. The Fragonard. El Greco. They are yours just as they were his. They add something to your presence when viewing.

One of my dinner partners told me last night that Henry Frick did not build that house to create a museum. I had always assumed he did because it is the perfect museum and very personal even with all its grandeur.
Passing through the Living Hall on our way to dinner.
Comtesse d'Haussonville, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1845.
He was drawn to grandeur, like a lot of us. Before he built the house on 70th and Fifth he rented the Vanderbilt mansion on 51st and Fifth. Mrs. Vanderbilt is said to have entertained 15,000 a year at her dinners and receptions. Grandeur required just to handle the numbers. Mr. Frick did not share Mrs. Vanderbilt’s brand of hospitality. His obsession was his collection – which included furniture. That was his grandeur. But he had to wait years after he bought it before he could build because it was occupied by the Lenox Library which had to be transferred to the New York Public. There were other lots available along Fifth in those days, but this one was the one he wanted.

Whatever his plans for the house – he lived in it for only five years before he died at age 69 of a heart attack. In his will he directed that it become a collection open to the public. He was most fortunate to have been succeeded by his daughter Helen Clay Frick who after his death eventually turned her father’s house into a monument to him and the collection that we can share in almost a century later.
Guests taking their seats in the dining room. The portrait by Francis Coats is of Sir Griffith Boynton.
The dinner last night is an annual affair for the members of the board and their associates. Once seated, we were given a brief but informative and intriguing lecture by Xavier Salomon, who is the Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator of the Frick Collection.  The subject was these two portraits of a man and his wife, Sir Griffith and Lady Boynton of Burton Agnes Hall in East Yorkshire, mid-18th century England. The painter was Francis Coats who Mr. Salomon told us last night would have been among the great portraitists of his age, like Gainsborough and Romney, but he died at 44. Mr. Salomon also told us how he died – taking a homemade remedy for something that was bothering him. Unbeknownst, the “remedy” was poison and killed him.
The two portraits discussed by Xavier Salomon before the dinner.
Sir Griffth and Lady Boynton. When Knoedler took them to sell in the first decade of the 20th century, buyers weren't interested in Sir Griffith, but only Lady Boynton. The women's portraits were often worth twice, even four times as much as the men. Knoedler insisted on finding a buyer who would take both. Henry Frick was that buyer.
Had he lived however, Mr. Salomon believes Coats would have taken his place in that pantheon of masters. The paintings now belong to Pemmy Frick (Mrs. Henry Clay Frick II). They were in the Boynton family from the 18th century to the first decade of the 20th century when Knoedler’s bought them from family members. Mr. Salomon explained how in those days of collecting, collectors wanted portraits of the women, the wives, not so much the husband. Knoedler’s had several interested clients but they really only wanted Lady Boynton. Some member of the Knoedler firm had decided that they should stay together. That is when Mr. Frick bought them – in 1915 for $50,000 which was a top price for Knoedler’s and in today’s dollars would probably be more like $5 million.

They are now hanging in the dining room of the house (where the dinner was held), and so we could gaze at them while their history was recounted by Mr. Salomon. Lady Boynton is the second wife. The baron also wrote poetry and wrote a poem about his new bride in that portrait. The first Lady Boynton had died at childbirth as did the child. The Coats portraits were the official pictures of the new couple. Coats has her holding some honeysuckle because honeysuckle in that era had was considered a symbol of  womanhood. I don’t know if I got that right but you catch my drift. I was immediately reminded of the honeysuckle when it flowered around my house in Los Angeles. Heavenly.
Over the English eighteenth-century marble chimneypiece in the Dining Room hangs a portrait by John Hoppner of The Ladies Sarah and Catherine Bligh, painted about 1790.
On the opposite wall hangs George Romney’s portrait of Henrietta, Countess of Warwick, and Her Children, 1789.
The Boyntons’ portraits were never hung in the Frick mansion in New York but instead were hung in Eagle Rock, The Frick country house in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts. They have been lent to the Collection at various times, as they are again. The portraits have only been in the possession of two families in more than 200 years. The Boyntons and the Fricks.

Xavier Salomon is not only a knowledgeable curator, he is also very amusing in his lectures bringing everything down to real life, including the Boyntons and the Fricks. So there we are, sitting in this magnificent dining room that overlooks East 70th Street, filled with the treasures, with an excellent dinner: Maine Lobster Salad with Satur Farms Roasted Beets, Horseradish, Young Mache and Hazelnut Vinaigrette, plus Duo of  Beef, Short Ribs ad Beef Tenderloin, Black Trupets, Brussel Sprout Leaves, Winter Roots, Crosnes, Celery Root Mousseline and Bordelaise Sauce,  followed by Apple Tarte Tatin with Fouettee. You had to be there; it was all delicious.
Our table.

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